Phoenix International Raceway poses a unique challenge as its long, sweeping turns are very different from one another. If a car is good in one turn, it is likely to be loose or tight in the other. Teams spend the race making adjustments to find the right balance of speed and handling in each turn. Adjustments are also necessary to keep up with the track, which will get hotter as the race wears on. Passing on corner entry is the safer bet. Drivers are able to pass coming out of the turns, but most accidents occur when cars run out of space and pinch each other coming out of the corner exits.
There were only four different leaders in the last race at Phoenix with 10 lead changes between them. With the recent dominance of Roush Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 figures to be similar. The driver that is able to best compromise his setup between the four distinctly different turns will have an excellent shot at taking home the victory. Great communication between driver, spotter and crew chief will probably make it a winning effort.
Location: Phoenix, Ariz.
Length: 1.00 miles
Banking: Turns 1 and 2 - 11 degrees; Turns 3 and 4 - 9 degrees
Table: Do not bench
Leading the pack
Greg Biffle | No. 16 3M/Red Cross Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Biffle's average Phoenix finish in his last five starts is 15.4. He will be aiming for his third top-10 Phoenix finish in a row in this weekend's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500. He sits third in points and will be trying to scratch his way closer to Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards. Since the Chase began Biffle has tallied two wins, four top-fives and six top-10s. There is no evidence to show that Biffle's fortunes might change this weekend, and that makes him a solid fantasy option. Look for Biffle to be a factor throughout the race.
Mark Martin | No. 8 U.S. Army Chevrolet | Dale Earnhardt Inc.
After a disappointing race in the Pep Boys Auto 500, Martin came back to finish 12th in last week's Dickies 500. He switched races with Aric Almirola in order to run Phoenix instead of Homestead Miami Speedway. The effort to make the switch makes sense given Martin was very strong in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 with a fifth-place finish; he matched Jimmie Johnson at the top with 312 laps spent in the top 15. He led 68 laps in that race. It should be more of the same for Martin in the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500. He should be a solid fantasy option looking for another top-five finish to close out his season with Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Kurt Busch | No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge | Penske Racing
Busch has picked up two top-10 finishes in the last four races. Unfortunately he suffered engine problems in last week's Dickies 500 and came in 36th in the TUMS QuikPak 500. His average finish in the last five Phoenix races is 17th. He won the 2005 Subway Fresh 500. Unfortunately Phoenix is also the site of one of Busch's lowest moments - an arrest on suspicion of drunk driving before moving to Penske Racing. Busch has put that moment behind him and, it would appear, the struggles of midseason as well. His results and presence near the front of the field have certainly improved. If Busch can continue that drive forward he could head into the offseason with the momentum to drive the program forward to a strong 2009 season.
Ryan Newman | No. 12 Alltel Dodge | Penske Racing
Newman took the pole and led 37 laps in the last Phoenix race before he was forced to retire with an engine failure. Newman is extremely fast at the track as evidenced by his four career poles. With just three top-fives in his 12 Phoenix starts, though, he obviously tends to qualify much better than he races. Still, if Newman can keep the equipment underneath him he could be a very strong challenger. Penske Racing has been improving on Kurt Busch's side, and Newman has yet to really get any of that benefit, but with Newman's speed at Phoenix we could see some evidence of his prowess, at least in qualifying.
Clint Bowyer | No. 07 Jack Daniel's Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Bowyer finished second in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 in April. That was before the competition caught up with the Richard Childress Racing program. Childress cars have certainly had more competition as the season has progressed, just as Joe Gibbs Racing has, but that just means they have to work a bit harder. Bowyer's average Phoenix finish in his last five starts is 14.6. He did pick up a DNF in the 2006 Checker Auto Parts 500 which drags that average down, though. With two top-fives and three top-10s in the last five races Bowyer should have the muscle to run up front.
Drivers to keep an eye on
Brian Vickers | No. 83 Red Bull Toyota | Red Bull Racing
Vickers' results have seen a steep decline since just before the Chase began. He hasn't rebounded from missing the Chase and has yet to score a top-10 since. With three top-fives and six top-10s on the season to that point, that is a serious disappointment. He finished 25th in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 and really has no results worth speaking of in his career at Phoenix with Red Bull Racing. He did pick up one top-five at the track with Hendrick Motorsports, though. Keep a lookout for Vickers to see if he can snap his downward tumble. He will want to avoid ending the season with struggles.
Bobby Labonte | No. 43 Cheerios/Betty Crocker Dodge | Petty Enterprises
Labonte's average finish in the last five starts at Phoenix is 14.6. In his last eight starts at the track he grabbed five top-10 finishes. Phoenix might just be one track where Labonte can finish this rough season on a high note. He consistently runs and finishes in the top 15 at the track and should be able to come home thereabouts again. Petty Enterprises really needs to improve, and they could have a good chance to hold their heads high with Labonte's abilities at Phoenix. Keep close tabs on him as he should have a solid run.
Jamie McMurray | No. 26 IRWIN Industrial Tools Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
McMurray could be one of the most improved drivers at the moment. He rolled into two top-fives and one top-10 in the four most recent races. Those were his first top-fives of the season. Based on his improvement alone, he is one to watch at Phoenix. He had a top-10 start there in April but only managed a 17th-place finish. Still, McMurray is looking like he could be the first driver not in the Chase to win a Chase race. McMurray would make a fantasy choice with a lot of upside even though he has yet to grab a top-10 result at Phoenix in his 10 career starts.
Kasey Kahne | No. 9 Budweiser Dodge | Gillett Evernham Motorsports
Since his second-place finish in the Bank of America 500, Kahne has endured one DNF and two other finishes worse than 20th. He finished April's Phoenix race in 36th position after starting fifth. Like Ryan Newman, Kahne can qualify well at Phoenix but has not backed up that short-term speed with long-term race results. He does have one top-five and three top-10 finishes in his eight career Phoenix starts, but is that enough to help him this weekend? He spent 204 of his 273 laps completed in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 in the top 15, so that should be strong evidence that it will.
Juan Pablo Montoya | No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge | Chip Ganassi Racing
Montoya has had an air of confidence lately. He truly feels his team is getting better, and his relationship with crew chief Brian Pattie is gelling. His optimism was evident in the Dickies 500 where he spent 244 of the 262 laps he raced in the top 15. He was wrecked, though, which made it five crashes in the last seven races. Montoya's abilities should be an advantage at the unique Phoenix track, and if his buoyancy wasn't destroyed by yet another crash, he should be eager to run in the top 15 again. That would be a great improvement for the struggling organization.